The annual holly heist, by Sarah Hall

For weeks we've been exhorting you to spend, spend, spend, but now that the presents have (with any luck) been bought and the preparations are complete, it's time to ponder the deeper meaning of Christmas. We asked our favourite writers to rant, reflect or reminisce on a festive theme. As Ronald Hutton explains, the last thing you should feel at this time of year is guilty, so sit down with a mince pie and enjoy
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The Independent Culture

Yuletide in the loft of England can be lovely, what with all the bright twilighting and white-capped mountains, the adorable old-fashioned garlanding of villages and our undeniable Northern cheer. It can also be a depraved and ruinous affair, a time of power-cuts, amateur goose slaughter in the outhouse and Black-eye Friday in the market towns that violent, incontinent form of delinquency brought on by excessive consumption of drink as soon as work lets up for the holidays.

The Christmases of my youth were particularly memorable, if for no other reason than the weather was always terrible. But terrible in a good way, in a mortalising, storm-bound way. There's a great tradition in Cumbria at least there was before the oil barons stole our snow to make ice centrepieces for their parties of sledging on plastic fertiliser bags. They go a fair lick down the steep fields: so licky in fact that you only know you've ripped your colon open on a passing rock when you arrive at the bottom and someone points to the guts hanging out of your rear end and says, "You should put those away."

My brother's favourite Christmas was the one when the local telegraph poles were blown down. This meant no electricity or heat in the old Westmorland cottage where we lived and, due to the natural-stone refrigeration, it was soon sitting at -20 degrees. I spent a good few hours fighting with the dog for residency of the toasty hearth-shelf next to the fire a losing battle. Not only are Lakeland terriers notoriously scrappy, they also like to roll in any agricultural gyp they can find. Bested by its savagery and the waft of festering carcass from its warm fur, I capitulated, and tucked myself up in bed with every hot-water bottle in the house. My brother, however, was as happy as an Arctic duck. Not only did he avoid having to speak to batty relatives on the phone, he convinced himself that the helicopter he'd requested from Santa had actually arrived, life-size, in working order, and busily winching new pylons on to the moor outside. He got as far as the pilot's door before being dragged back by the ankles.

There were of course the sickly Christmases holidays when the nasties were doing the rounds, holidays when mother had to get her Bumper Book of Crackpot Remedies out and administer her trusty folk cures. There was the Christmas of the chilblains. Mother's crackpot prescription: run barefoot in the frost. Result: chilblains with chilblains. The Christmas of the howling skitters from eating too much chocolate. Prescription: eat something sweet, like chocolate. Result: an arse condition not dissimilar to that brought on by fertiliser bag sledging. The Christmas of boils in the ears. Prescription: tip fish oil down the ear canal. Result: a not unwelcome dampening of the church carol service.

These Christmases were not as unlucky as they might have been, mother assured us. Children down South had rickets and phossy-jaw because they didn't eat any sprouts, they lived in orphanages, and there was no holly south of Manchester for them to decorate their pallet beds we were robust and fortunate by comparison.

Holly is one seasonal idiocy I still feel compelled to partake in every year. When I was a kid it was dad's speciality, his most seriously maintained tradition. Unlike its jolly depictions in winter tales, where impoverished old woodsmen find gold inside the crimson berries and are miraculously redeemed from peasantry, hollying in the National Park is a dark enterprise. For one thing, it's faintly illegal. For another, it involves precarious and painful tree surgery. But a fiver a bag at the auction-mart was daylight robbery according to dad this was God's-own greenery after all, and should be "naturally foraged" from the local environs.

At sundown on the day of the heist, my brother and I would don our camouflage gear (green cagoules, red hats we were practically invisible) and bundle ourselves into the back of the car, with strict instructions to lay low until the all-clear was given. Then, into the spinneys we'd nash, our torn plastic fertiliser bags and our garden clippers in hand. These expeditions were usually fairly late in Advent and by then the lower branches of every accessible holly had been ransacked by other "natural foragers". No matter. Dad had invented, if not yet patented, the Extendy-Cropper. The Extendy-Cropper was a pair of shears tied to the end of a pole, with a piece of string attached to one of the handles so the blades could be yanked closed a device specifically designed to prune the untouched bounty at the top of the trees. It was a remarkable piece of engineering, if a little unwieldy.

Occasionally the Extendy-Cropper got lodged somewhere in the thicket, then my dad and my brother would climb heroically into the foliage, some deeply vernacular language would ensue as they arranged their man-bits around the prickles, and the Christmas harvest would be done by hand. My job was to retrieve the cuttings from wherever they were dropped, either on the ground or embedded in my scalp, and wrestle them into the swag bags. All this was accomplished in haste, in the dingy dusk, before any burly Warden of the Forest had a chance to collar us, and mother would be forced to smuggle turkey sandwiches into our cell.

Despite the lacerations, it was a wildly exciting time, as only illicit festivities can be. And, once shaped by the criminal pathologies of our parents, we are but helpless clones, I suppose. More often than not I can be found lingering around the woods on Christmas Eve, sporting a fetching green and red ensemble, and hiding a long-poled, jerry-rigged contraption behind my back.

Sarah Hall's latest novel, 'The Carhullan Army', won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize 2006/2007

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